MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - The Middlebury Board of Trustees held its winter meeting January 28–January 30 via Zoom. The trustees approved a number of items: the 2021-2022 comprehensive fee for the College; a financial sustainability resolution that requires Middlebury to maintain an annual balanced budget; tenure for one faculty member; and the renovations of Warner Hall, Voter Hall, and Dana Auditorium in Sunderland Hall. Board members also received a financial update and participated in a professional development seminar on implicit bias with Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji.
Trustee Parker Harris facilitated a discussion with Board Chair George Lee and President Laurie Patton on trends in higher education, and how Middlebury fits into that landscape. The focus was on three different national developments that COVID has exacerbated:
The growing need for financial aid for college students.
The widening gap between elite colleges and underfunded publics and privates with greater financial challenges.
The trend in “unbundling” degrees into smaller units.
Patton emphasized Middlebury College’s fundamental and ongoing commitment to the residential learning model of liberal arts and sciences, and place-based, immersive learning. She also highlighted long-term post-COVID-19 opportunities, particularly in the graduate schools.
“During the pandemic, we learned that we can do many things we had not thought possible,” said Patton. “In the future when COVID-19 recedes, our challenge is to determine how to keep those elements that have been successful.”
Patton cited asynchronous learning skills, online course offerings at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and classes taught by Middlebury Schools Abroad faculty to students at the College as examples of these opportunities. She discussed other topics as well, including finances, environmental leadership, and student health and wellness.
Two new committees of the board also met this January. The first, the External Relations Committee, met for the second time and discussed key pillars for the upcoming comprehensive campaign: access, academic excellence, and experience. The second, the trustee committee on Diversity Equity and Inclusion–a subcommittee of the Strategy and Programs Committee–gathered to discuss its primary goals and mission. Its members also heard about the work of the Faculty Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, who joined them later in the meeting.
David Provost, executive vice president for finance and administration, shared with the trustees that Middlebury’s finances continue to trend in a positive direction due to careful management of expenses, federal and state support for some of the costs related to COVID-19, and steady enrollment. These factors caused a decrease in the projected deficit for the first six months of fiscal year 2021 from $18.5 million to $10.2 million, said Provost. Middlebury has received $4.3 million in federal and state aid related to COVID-19 costs since July 1, 2020.
Provost also shared with the board his projection for a return to a balanced budget with a small surplus during fiscal year 2022, which will be the first balanced budget since fiscal year 2012. He said that the Middlebury community will move to a balanced budget based on the work done across the institution to trim expenses before the pandemic; an increase in the comprehensive fee; and an anticipated boost in enrollment on campus by students who had previously studied remotely, withdrawn, or deferred.
On January 30, the full board addressed the issue of the fee when members approved a 2.5 percent increase in tuition and fees at the College for the 2021–2022 academic year. Next year’s tuition will be $59,330, room and board will be $17,050, and the student activity fee will be $440. “Raising the fee allows Middlebury to continue to be need blind, support our students and programs, and address the impact of Covid-19,” said Provost. “We understand the hardship on families during the pandemic and that is why we are keeping the increase to its lowest level since the 2014-2015 academic year.”
The trustees also approved the tenure recommendation for Tanya S. Byker, a member of the Economics Department. Her promotion from assistant to associate professor will be effective July 1.
For the second time, the board authorized the renovation of Warner Hall, which houses the full Mathematics Department and partially houses the Economics and Luso-Hispanic Studies Departments. The board had approved the renovation in January 2020 but budget constraints due to uncertainty related to the pandemic and the focus on wage continuity had temporarily halted the project.
Work on Warner is currently scheduled to begin in June 2021 and conclude in the summer of 2022. The construction will include the installation of an elevator, new mechanical and fire protection systems, new windows and interior finishes, and upgrades to classroom technology. Middlebury will incorporate Universal Design, which goes beyond ADA compliance, into the plans for Warner as it does now in all building renovations. The new walkway that will lead to Warner will be one example of this effort. It will replace stairs and a ramp so that all individuals will enter the building the same way.
The board also authorized two more renovations:
Voter Hall–Work will take place from June through August 2021. The renovation will convert student residences back to offices. Once the project is complete, the Luso-Hispanic Studies Department will move from Warner to Voter.
Dana Auditorium in Sunderland Hall–Construction will start in August 2021 and conclude in the spring of 2022. Changes will include improved seating, flooring, lighting, and video equipment as well as the addition of Universal Design access.
The trustees approved two financial measures:
Middlebury will secure a short-term loan to pay for budget shortfalls largely due to the pandemic, including the loss of student room and board fees at the College and the Language Schools, and costs related to testing and safety preparations on campus. The board authorized Middlebury to take this step rather than borrow more from the endowment.
Middlebury will institute long-term financial flexibility criteria that it must meet each fiscal year. They call for Middlebury to take the following actions:
Operate at a surplus beginning with fiscal year 2022.
Limit the amount drawn from the endowment to five percent of the endowment’s worth. This step will ensure that the endowment grows.
Fully amortize 50 percent of debt. Middlebury will annually make principal payments on a minimum of 50 percent of all outstanding debt. This measure will prevent the need to budget to pay for old projects.
“Faculty, staff, and students have asked me how we can prevent future budget deficits,” said Provost. “Meeting the financial flexibility criteria every year is the way we will do that.”
Mark Peluso, chief health officer and college physician, provided board members with an update on COVID-19 planning for the spring semester and current conditions in Vermont.
Trustees also participated in a professional development session with psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Psychology Department at Harvard. She gave a seminar–“Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People”–followed by a Q&A session.
Banaji is also one of three founders of Project Implicit, a nonprofit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition–thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The organization works to educate the public about hidden biases regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the Internet.